In the continued battle for The Future of Publishing™, Random House has apparently told its agents and authors that it owns the e-book rights to all backlist titles published before 1994 (apparently the Random House standard contract was altered in 1994 to explicitly include electronic rights). As you might imagine, this is a somewhat contentious issue.
In one corner, you've got the Authors Guild insisting that since authors never expressly granted Random House electronic rights, they are retained by those authors. The AG further claims that The Big House is aware of this, since they went ahead and altered the language of their contracts in 1994 to explicitly claim electronic rights, which the AG takes as an implicit admission by Random House that they do not control electronic rights for earlier titles.
In the other corner, you've got Random House insisting that they retain all U.S. rights to the books they acquire, which implicitly include electronic rights. They haven't said as much (at least, not to my knowledge), but I imagine their position regarding the change of language in their contracts is that it was merely a clarification of existing terms, and not the introduction of new terms of acquisition per se. So far, all we know is that they "respectfully disagree" with the AG's position.
I've always been of the opinion that any rights not specifically granted to one party by another are retained by the party granting the right(s), but I haven't seen the legalese in question and therefore am not really in a position to make a determination. I do think it sets a dangerous precedent for future rights battles, however, since if a company can buy the rights to something that doesn't even exist yet, there's theoretically no limit to the latitude they'll have with everything from book formats to international distribution. Scary times, cats and kittens. Scary times.
In lighter news: happy holidays, and I'll be posting the winners of the First Ever Guest Post Contest tomorrow morning!